Indonesian Spices in Medieval Cyprus

In the year 1191 Richard I, King of England, conquered the island of Cyprus, which had up to that point been (a breakaway) part of the Roman (‘Byzantine’) empire (Figure 1). In 1192 Richard handed the island over to the King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, in compensation for Guy’s loss of the throne of Jerusalem — a result of some complicated politicking and military defeats that I won’t get into here.

Fig. 1 — A (much much later) illustration of Richard I’s 1191 conquest of Cyprus, from a northern French manuscript of the French translation of William of Tyre’s “Historia”. Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 85, f.229v — copied 1460–65.

The resulting Kingdom of Cyprus remained in the hands of the Lusignan family until the late fifteenth century. After a series of raids between 1424 and 1426, after the last of which King Janus of the House of Lusignan was captured (and ultimately ransomed), the Kingdom became a tributary state to the Mamluk Sultanate based at Cairo; and after a few decades of paying tribute to the Mamluks, the island was annexed by Venice (unofficially in 1473 and formally in 1489). With the abdication of the last Queen of Cyprus, Catherine Cornaro, in 1489, ‘…the kingdom of Cyprus was reduced to a province’ (…Cypriumque regnum in provinciam est redactum), as the Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo (2007[1548]:48–49) put it.

Fig. 2 — Just in case you’d forgotten where Cyprus was…

Anyway, under the Lusignans, the Kingdom exported large amounts of locally grown sugar (Saccharum officinarum, a plant incidentally domesticated and first cultivated in New Guinea), and the island became an important gathering point for luxury goods from Africa and Asia. It was from Cyprus that many spices and other luxuries reached eastern Europe in particular, principally via the Black Sea (see Dembińska 1999[1963]:40–42). The Kingdom had long-term links with both the Latin East — of which it was ultimately a part — and Egypt under the Ayyubids and, naturally, the Mamluks. And, as a result of the island’s geographical location and the Kingdom’s political and mercantile connections, Cyprus became known across Europe as a place of exotic delicacy (Figure 3).

Fig. 3 — Two recipes referencing Cyprus in a fifteenth-century English cookbook (London, British Library, Harley MS 279, f.2r — copied c.1430). The “ryalle” (‘royal’) one may be a little fancier, but even the ‘bastard’ recipe calls for wine, sugar, ginger, galangal, cinnamon, parsley, riceflour, saffron, (red) sandalwood, mace, cloves, and cubebs.

Naturally, a number of references to Indo-Malaysian spices can be found in the Kingdom’s legal codes — chiefly the Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois (‘book of the assizes of the burgess court’), a code of laws applied in the Kingdom’s lower courts, which survives in various forms: in the original French; in Greek translation; and in a later Italian version. The Livre des Assises was probably not written in Cyprus but on the Asian mainland, probably at Acre, in the early 1250s. As Acre was conquered by the Mamluks in the 1290s, the Assizes didn’t apply in that part of the world for very long; in Cyprus these laws were imposed on non-nobles for more than three centuries, right up to the Ottoman conquest of the island in 1571.

While the ruling class in Lusignan Cyprus was largely French-speaking, Greek remained the first language of most of the commoners (and eventually of some lawyers). It is hardly surprising that these laws were eventually translated into Greek — although it is not known precisely when this happened, and the surviving Greek texts of the Livre des Assises date to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In any case, the Livre des Assises mentions, as I say, a large number of commodities from Africa and Asia, including several spices from the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. These spices appear in the context of laws governing customs duties. An example from the French version can be seen in Figure 4 (transcription and translation below):

Fig. 4 — A statue concerning camphor (“cafor”) in a manuscript of the “Assises”. Munich, Bavarian State Library (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek), Cod.gall. 51, f.122v. Copied in around 1315 in Cyprus, then still under Lusignan control. (You can find the 1843 edition of the French text by Beugnot here, incidentally — pages 173–177.)

La dreiture dou cafor
si comande la raison cõ
dee prendre dou C. ix
[besans] et viij karoubles
de dreiture

As for the duty on camphor, the law decrees that a duty of 9 marks and 8 karoubles on every 100 marks’ worth is payable’ (translation by Coureas — 2002:220).

Now, I’m mostly interested in the names used in the Greek translation of the Livre, which I’ll go over in turn below. This is partly so as to continue my short series on Indo-Malaysian references in medieval Greek texts. (See here and here for earlier posts in this vein.) First, though, I should say something about the currency used in the Livre so that you will be able to better interpret the translation above and extracts below.

The Greek text uses πέρπυρα (Romanised: pérpura) for the coin equivalent to the mark or, in the French text, the besant (or bezant — from ‘Byzant(ium)’). This was a gold coin ultimately derived from a Roman solidus. The karouble, or carouble — both forms may be found in consecutive paragraphs of the French version — was a tiny silver coin reportedly ‘worth one twenty-fourth of a bezant in thirteenth-century Latin Syria’ (Coureas 2002:218.n521, 522). I’m not exactly an expert on crusader coinage, but the name is said to come from the Arabic kharrūba (خروبة), originally meaning ‘carob’. The Greek name for the k/carouble was κουκί (‘broad bean [Vicia faba]’). (I find these botanical references rather cute.)

Since the laws governing spices are all much of a muchness, differing only in the duties levied on each commodity, I won’t bother to transcribe them all here. I shall instead focus on the Greek names for the spices and give their French equivalents alongside. All the examples below are taken from Articles 295 and 296 in Codex One of the Greek Assizes; the Greek is taken from Constantine Sathas’s edition (1877:488–490) and the English from Nicholas Coureas’s translation (2002:219–221). The French names for the commodities are all taken from Munich, Bavarian State Library (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek), Cod.gall. 51, a manuscript of the Assizes in French copied in Cyprus in around 1315.

Here they are in the order in which they appear in the text:


‘Nutmeg’ — literally ‘musk (wal)nut’, and equivalent of the French noís mouscades (Cod.gall. 51, f.121r).


Literally ‘musk leaves’, and equivalent of feullíes mouscades in the French version (Cod.gall. 51, f.121r), but here surely ‘mace’ — the fragrant aril that surrounds the nutmeg seed. You may recall from earlier posts on this blog that in various languages in the Middle Ages mace was referred to as ‘nutmeg flower’ (e.g. Old Czech muscatum kviet, Early New High German muscart blůtt, etc.). For both nutmeg and mace, anyway, 9 bezants and 8 karoubles were payable on every 100 bezants’ worth.


‘Cloves’, literally ‘musk nail’ (καρφί — ‘nail’) — equivalent of the French clos de giroffle (Cod.gall. 51, f.121r). The duty was 9.5 bezants on every 100 bezants’ worth. The French text includes a confusing reference to ‘clove leaves’ (feílles dou giroffle) that does not appear in the Greek version; what these ‘clove leaves’ may have been I cannot say for certain, although this may, at a stretch, be a reference to the bark of Cinnamomum culitlawan, an eastern Indonesian tree whose bark smells of cloves. (The culitlawan in the Latin binominal is from the Malay kulit lawang ‘clove bark’; the product is known in Chinese as ‘clove bark’ as well.)


‘Galangal’ — equivalent of the French galẽgal (Cod.gall. 51, f.122r). (I’ve discussed the supposed origins of this word before.) Duty: 4 bezants and 4 karoubles on every 100 bezants’ worth.


‘Cinnamon’, equivalent of the French canelle (Cod.gall. 51, f.122v) — notably not the older Greek form κιννάμωμον (which may well have referred to a different plant anyway). Like galangal, 4 bezants and 4 karoubles on every 100 bezants’ worth.


‘Camphor’, equivalent of cafor (Cod.gall. 51, f.122v). It’s interesting that the Greek form here has an ⟨ν⟩ —Romanised: kanfàr — when the French form does not. As noted above, 9 bezants and 8 karoubles would be paid on every 100 bezants’ worth of camphor.

Note how different this word for ‘camphor’ is from the form in Andreopoulos’s Book of Syntipas the Philosopher, καφουρά, and from the word for camphor in the following phrase in another law in the Livre:

ρίζαν τοῦ καφουρίου

‘Camphor root’, equivalent of racine dou cafour in Cod.gall. 51, f.123r. I’m not entirely sure what this refers to, but it could be that the product here is actually the timber of the camphor tree with the camphor still embedded (bearing in mind that in the Book of Syntipas the Philosopher the reference to camphor is explicitly a reference to wood). There are other possibilities. In any case, 11 bezants and 5 karoubles were to be paid on every 100 bezants’ worth — this ‘root’ must have been rather valuable.

There are of course other spices, and other African and Asian commodities, to be found in the many articles of the Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois, including classics like pepper, aloeswood, and saffron, as you might expect. The above represents only a selection. If you know of any more references to Indo-Malaysian commodities in Greek texts from the Middle Ages, do let me know; there’s always more out there than a superficial examination can uncover. As ever, I should be working on other things, but I’m finding this Greek stuff quite fascinating at the moment.

A. J. West — Leiden, 2021


Bembo, Pietro. 2007 [1548]. History of Venice. Volume I. Books I-IV. Robert W. Ulery (ed and trans). The I Tatti renaissance library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Beugnot, A. A. 1843. Assises de Jérusalem ou Recueil des ouvrages de jurisprudence composés pendant le XIIIe siècle dans les royaumes de Jérusalem et de Chypre. Volume 2. Paris: Imprimerie royale.

Coureas, Nicholas. 2002. The assizes of the Lusignan kingdom of Cyprus. Nicosia: Cyprus Research Centre. Texts and studies in the history of Cyprus XLII.

Dembińska, Maria. 1999 [1963]. Food and drink in medieval Poland. Magdalena Thomas (trans). William Woys Weaver (ed). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sathas, Constantine. 1877. Μεσαιωνική βιβλιοθήκη (Medieval Library). Volume 6. Venice: Typous tou Chronou.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.